The most striking image of HD Kumaraswamy’s swearing in ceremony in Bengaluru on Wednesday (May 23) was the presence of the entire anti-BJP Opposition universe together on the stage, exulting at the sudden turn of events which brought them together. It has led some to think that the Karnataka spectacle has set the tempo for the 2019 Lok Sabha election campaign. The resultant hype in the media, and elsewhere, has been that the anti-Modi Opposition caboodle has finally hit upon a winning strategy to stop the Modi-Shah team from steamrolling through the country.
While that may well happen, there are many hurdles that could trip the aspirations of those who see a mahagathbandhan, emerging from the current Opposition bonhomie, defeating the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
For one, will the Congress, at present content to play second fiddle to a regional party the Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka, shed its grand pretensions and accept the role of a junior partner at the national level? If so, who else in the raucous Opposition space will assume the role of a ‘margdarshak’ to bind together the regional and semi-regional outfits and balance their competing politics?
After all, most of those seen on Kumaraswamy’s stage in Bengaluru have prime ministerial ambitions of their own, including Rahul Gandhi, who had even articulated it during the Karnataka election campaign. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)-Samajwadi Party (SP) combine’s stunning win in the Gorakhpur and Phulpur bye-elections as also Mamata Banerjee’s hold in West Bengal have given wings to their national ambitions.
Simple arithmetic says that even if the BJP holds on to its 31 % vote share in 2019, if all Opposition parties, or at least most of them, unite and put up a combined front they can comfortably defeat the Saffron party. But politics has an arithmetic of its own and not all parties can transfer their vote banks at will. For example, the BSP has in the past demonstrated an ability to transfer its votes to an alliance partner, but the Congress in Uttar Pradesh cannot do so. And what of West Bengal, where Mamata Banerjee is unlikely to share any seats with the Left?
Then, there are parties like the Telugu Desam Party , the Indian National Lok Dal, the Biju Janata Dal or even the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam who have at some point or the other allied with the BJP. Despite the show of strength in Bengaluru, when cold practicalities take over, will they cast their lot with a rag-tag bunch that has no ideological underpinning except the stated desire for a BJP-mukt Bharat? It’s true that the intimidating, ‘take no prisoners’ approach of Modi and Shah in the last four years has alienated much of the Opposition from the BJP camp and sent them scurrying to Bengaluru in the first place. But forging a stable unity on this premise alone may alienate large sections of the electorate. If everyone is seen ganging up against Saffron forces, Modi might end up with a huge sympathy factor in his favour.
In the last four years Saffron forces have taken Hindutva and its many forms to every nook and corner of India, even those areas which were not penetrated in the 2014 elections. The Hindu sentiment as it were, is on the ascendant, and overrides the pain of demonetisation or the inability of the Modi government to provide jobs in the hinterland. Any attempt to cobble together a ‘secular’ front will most certainly invite the full might of the Saffron camp in communalising the nation. It is anybody’s guess what this will do to the country.
Also, anti-BJPism by itself is not a sound foundation for Opposition unity; it will need new faces, a fresh agenda for governance and a clear road map to change India for the better. Indeed, a credible agenda for change could even counter the Hindutva effect to some extent. But the big question is, can the parties currently milling around the manna of a secular front put one together?